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Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2006 Apr 28;151(2-3):109-23. Epub 2006 Jan 30.

What makes a champion? Explaining variation in human athletic performance.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, 1400 Washington Ave., The University at Albany, SUNY, Albany, NY 12222, USA.


Variation in human athletic performance is determined by a complex interaction of socio-cultural, psychological, and proximate physiological factors. Human physiological trait variance has both an environmental and genetic basis, although the classic gene-environment dichotomy is clearly too simplistic to understand the full range of variation for most proximate determinants of athletic performance, e.g., body composition. In other words, gene and environment interact, not just over the short term, but also over the lifetime of an individual with permanent effects on the adult phenotype. To further complicate matters, gene and environment may also be correlated. That is, genetically gifted individuals may be identified as children and begin training pulmonary, cardiovascular, and muscle systems at an early critical age. This review covers evidence in support of a genetic basis to human athletic performance, with some emphasis on the recent explosion of candidate gene studies. In addition, the review covers environmental influences on athletic performance with an emphasis on irreversible environmental effects, i.e., developmental effects that may accrue during critical periods of development either before conception (epigenetic effects), during fetal life (fetal programming), or during childhood and adolescence. Throughout, we emphasize the importance of gene-environment interaction (G x E) as a means of understanding variation in human physiological performance and we promote studies that integrate genomics with developmental biology.

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